All Star Theatre readies pair of McPAC shows

This weekend, All Star Theatre performs “Willy Wonka Jr.” at the McAllen Performing Arts Center with a different cast for both Saturday and Sunday — which means preparing two actors for each role.

“If you go to see the show on Saturday, you’re going to have a very different experience than if you go on Sunday,” said company director Joel Garza. “Both uniquely different, but both excellent.

“The coolest thing is everybody gets to put their own spin on it and make it their own.”

It can be difficult to prepare a double-cast show, said Garza, but it’s meant to maximize the number of parts so more Rio Grande Valley kids can get excited about drama.

Attempting to spur a love for the arts has always been in the DNA of the troupe, he said.

AST was created in 2012 to fulfill a thesis requirement for Garza, and to provide young actors an outlet, he said.

“We never had anything like this before,” said Garza, actor-turned-college instructor. “That was my favorite part: making theater accessible.”

Coordinated voices echo through the Tenth Street practice space as the kids warm up for rehearsal. The casts are getting extra work in the week of the performances, but their usual schedule consisted of Saturday practices.

While this leaves students open for other extracurricular activities, it requires a great deal of homework.

Owen Enslein, 12, who portrays a Charlie, gets a lot of his singing done in the shower, he said.

“I sound great,” he joked.

Because “the show is about pure imagination,” he said, sets are dynamic and can change quickly.

“You have to know what you’re doing,” he said. “They bring everything to life, the dancing especially.”

Owen’s sister, Sophie, 14, portrays Wonka. She said the production is challenging, and heavy on singing, dancing and acting.

It’s unique, she said, because usually stories revolve about characters falling in love.

“This one is different because it’s a boy falling in love with a factory,” Sophie said, “and the audience falling in love with everything Wonka’s created.”

Owen commended his castmates, and said it was a great environment to work, which is something company assistant Daniela Rodriguez remembers about her AST experience.

Rodriguez’s first-ever role was in the first AST show, “Spring Awakening” in 2012.

“As much as the performer in me loved to be on stage and in the spotlight, I really got to experience what it was like to work as a collaborative team and family,” she said.

It impacted Rodriguez  so heavily, the 25-year-old decided to pursue theater in college.

When AST began, the company opened with a provocative piece that hadn’t yet been attempted in the Valley, the 2007 Tony Award-winning “Spring Awakening.”

“It was a disaster,” he said, speaking about the finances. “It was a great experience, and it was really fun, but we owed people money when that show closed.

“I remember thinking that there was no way we could do theater.”

Garza planned to satisfy his theater interests another way, but the next season people kept approaching him. After many interactions, he said, someone confided that they would have never experience performance if it wasn’t for AST.

“Well, maybe there is something to it,” he recalled.

The company would shift from all-ages productions to focus on kids’ show, like “Annie,” “Pippin,” “Wizard of Oz,” and “The Lion King.”

“We have kids from so many different elementaries and middle schools,” Rodriguez said. “It’s really neat to see them come here and form their own little collaborative teams.”

Garza said a goal is to shape the program that he would have wanted to have around when he was a kid.

“I always wanted to be part of a theatrical environment, and I had to wait until high school to be a part of something this cool,” he said. “To know that there are elementary and middle-school aged students that are coming through our doors to be able to refining their craft or dabble in something that they wouldn’t is the coolest thing to me.”